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Stand and Deliver

Damon Linker defends the history lecture:

A more powerful and compelling defense of the humanities lecture course would have to proceed differently — into terrain that professors of history, philosophy, and literature often find exceedingly uncomfortable these days. Such a defense would require that they confidently assert that professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.

There are many reasons why professors in the humanities are disinclined to mount this kind of self-defense. For one thing, the knowledge they offer seems so much less universally verifiable and socially useful than the knowledge produced in the STEM fields. Then there’s postmodern skepticism, which convinces many humanities professors that all claims to knowledge are thinly veiled assertions of power and efforts at exclusion and marginalization. (Who would want to be found guilty of that?) Finally, there are the democratic sensibilities that Worthen herself highlights in talking about our discomfort with the way that lecturing implies a hierarchy elevating the professor over her students.

All of these trends combine to make us uncomfortable with a professor pronouncing authoritatively from a lecturn — and increasingly at ease with group work in which no one sets himself up as an authority, no one presumes to pronounce definitively on truth and falsehood, and no one lays down a metanarrative and forces the students to master it. Small groups of three or four young adults simply working it out for themselves seems so much more in keeping with our moral convictions.

The democratic approach to education might comport with our egalitarian sensibilities, but it’s pedagogically foolish.

Why do students of history need teachers who will stand at the front of a classroom and lecture? Because history is hard. It presupposes the knowledge of thousands of facts (names, dates, events) and how they fit together into an enormously complicated, multi-dimensional causal sequence. Until the students absorb those facts and grasp that causal sequence, “group work” and other forms of interactive learning are premature.

That’s why lecture-based courses that do the introductory work of explaining the past must come first — and why such courses are typically followed by smaller, more advanced seminars that foster conversation and debate and raise questions of historiography (competing and conflicting interpretive traditions about the past). By that point, students have learned enough — they know enough — to begin participating more actively in their own education.

But not before.

I’m not sure you really need to wait to work in groups until after you’ve finished listening to lectures – I think many students benefit from group work from very young ages. But I agree wholeheartedly with the defense of the lecture as such, and would alter Linker’s emphasis only slightly, as follows.

Some students – particularly those who don’t readily grasp the material – are greatly aided by having a framework within which to situate themselves, and that’s precisely what a narrative provides. But the strongest, most independent-minded students may well chafe against the restraints of such a framework. And the thing is, pushing against that framework is exactly what is going to make their own intelligence more powerful and effective.

I forget who it was – Helen Vendler, possibly – who questioned the Columbia University core curriculum’s notion of what makes books “great” by noting that, while you could build a canon out of Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tolstoy, you could also build a very different canon out of Ovid, Boccaccio, Cervantes and Joyce. Without even getting to once-trendy debates about the identity politics of the canon, you can have a robust debate about what kinds of books qua books belong in such a list, and what putting a book on such a list does to the book itself. But you can’t have that debate without first making precisely such a list.

Similarly, I learned about modern art from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the art history book they put out which amounted to a text. MoMA was notorious, then, for imposing an extremely strong narrative on the history of modern art, one that emphasized purity and a drive toward abstraction. It’s a narrative that was born as Abstract Expressionism rose to prominence, and it reflected that movement’s own values. And it’s a narrative that made it hard to explain why exactly an artist like Klee or O’Keefe was important. But you couldn’t have had that argument without having a strong narrative to argue against.

All of which is not so much an argument for conservatism as it is for taking a stand. Yes, there is a multiplicity of defensible, workable narratives, for history, philosophy, etc. But I am giving the lecture, and I see things this way. And part of the way I am going to teach you how to come to your own perspective is by making you deal with mine. Yes, this means your perspective will be shaped by mine, either by acceptance or by resistance or by a creative reinterpretation that winds up subsuming my own perspective into something new that you can call your own. But how else can you learn?

And now, I’m going to take off my Harold Bloom mask and get back to writing that screenplay.


about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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